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Now That’s First Class: X-Men – First Class & Superhero Nostalgia

I have to admit that X-Men: First Class is a movie that I find myself in a wild state of flux over. At times, I’m delighted by the sensational casting, the fantastic director and the wonderful artistic design that we’re seeing. However, I am equally curious as to what the point of a prequel is, or why Bryan Singer jumped ship so quickly. At times, it’s one of my most anticipated movies of the coming year, while at others it’s just another film awaiting release. Somewhat lost amid the announcement that Bane and Catwoman would be the villains of The Dark Knight Rises, Fox released a slew of information about their newest X-Men film last week. looking at eth photos, I can’t help wondering whether the superhero movie genre is on the cusp of the nostalgia-fest which has swept their comic book counterparts in recent years.

He always had a magnetic personality...

First Class is the story of the founding of the Charles Xavier Academy for Gifted Students. It’s the story of the schism which developed between Charles Xavier and his close friend Erik Lensherr. Lensherr would go on to become the mutant terrorist Magneto. So, it’s a prequel. However, unlike the comic books upon which this is based, the story is consciously set within a real-world timeline. In comic books, “secret origins” and untold past adventures are frequently set against a vague historical backdrop which is ultimately indistinguishable from the modern day. If this were a comic book, it would have all the trappings of the early twenty-first century.

This is simply because of what comic book fan call the “sliding timeline” effect. Batman will always have been active for ten years in Gotham, despite the fact he has been published for over seventy years. So it’s pointless to set Batman: Year One in a definitive time period, because it will just awkwardly date it. So we don’t dwell on the historical context of the time that it might have been set, instead looking at its relative place within Batman’s internal chronology.

I hope you dont mind...

However, X-Men: First Class firmly rebukes this convention. It is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so it’s anchored in October 1962. This makes sense if the movie is to serve as a prequel to X-Men and X-Men II, taking place about forty years earlier. It’s an interesting choice for the production to make, but not nearly as interesting as how clearly the movie flaunts it.

The other X-Men prequel, the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, adopts a similar approach. Set about twenty to thirty years before the original films, it takes place in the seventies or eighties. However, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that it’s set in the past – there’s no real attempt to draw attention to it, and it’s quite possible that the cast are just driving around in old cars and wearing slightly out-of-fashion clothes. It so subtle that I reckon the vast majority of people didn’t notice it.

Check out those sideburns!

However, there is nothing nearly as subtle about First Class. Every picture smells of a strong nostalgic flavour. For example, look at Emma Frost’s jumpsuit or Sebastian Shaw’s sideburns – just screaming for your attention. The characters aren’t dressed in the almost timeless attire that Wolverine wore in his film (denim and shirts never go out of style), they are wearing smoking jackets and flairs. The film wants you to know that you are going to see a “retro” superhero film.

What is much more interesting to note, in the picture which headlines this article, is that Magneto is wearing a classic X-Men outfit. It’s the blue outfit with the yellow stripes which we all remember from the cartoons that we watched when we were younger. When Bryan Singer took the reigns, he opted to avoid the more ridiculous superhero costumes, eschewing the bright colours for black leather. It’s an approach that a lot of other films followed – toning down the excess of their source material, somewhat embarrassed by the geeky nature of it all. The comic books did follow suit for a while, adopting a “no spandex” rule for the X-Men in the wake of the film (both New X-Men and Ultimate X-Men). Interestingly, it was Joss Whedon (who will be directing The Avengers) who reversed the policy and reintroduced skintight spandex in Astonishing X-Men, as an example of the kind of nostalgia I think we’re seeing here.

A class act?

First Class, on the other hand, seems 100% faithful to its roots. Many directors would have balked at the character of Emma Frost, whose mutant ability seems to be the power to keep her skimpy outfits together no matter what. Indeed, when the character “appeared” in Wolverine (though I think we can say now that’s not her – given that the character is being used for First Class), she was much more modestly attired. Although the women in such films wore skin-tight leather (as did the men, it should be said), they weren’t as ridiculously sexualised as some of their comic-book counterparts.

Take, for example, the ninja Elektra. She was created as a ninja assassin by Frank Miller. On-screen, she appeared in Daredevil and her own doomed Elektra movie. Look below and compare and contrast the original comic book portrayal with Garner’s outfit – though flesh was still on display, the movie veered away from the more awkwardly nerdy fetishistic outfit she wore in the comics. However, in First Class, January Jones apparently spends a significant amount of time in the movie wandering around in Emma’s iconic white lingerie.

Compare and contrast...

Perhaps this represents a general trend in superhero movies. The web was also abuzz last week with the news that Spider-Man would reportly build his own web-shooters (as opposed to developing them with his powers)in Marc Webb’s Spider-Man reboot. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man gave him organic web-shooters for the sake of narrative convenience, a departure from the source material. It always struck me as odd that Parker could invent impossible web fluid and yet still be unable to find a decent or highly-paying job, but then I’m a nitpicker. The decision to have Peter design his own web shooters harks back closely to the original comics (as does the decision to feature Gwen Stacy before the more iconic and recognisable Mary Jane Watson).

Being honest, I’ve never thought much about either. I just want the movie to tell an engaging and interesting story. If giving him webs as part of his superpowers allows the movie to move through the origin we all know any quicker, then go with it. Similarly, if Mary Jane is a better fit for the story you’re trying to tell, use her. I don’t care about things as minute as continuity. I just want an entertaining movie with a bunch of iconic characters.

Web of intrigue...

Similarly, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor seems to be embracing the more colourful side of the iconic Marvel hero, with a consciously old-fashioned and grandiose design which I’m not entirely sure will win over modern audiences, but pays due respect to the character’s long and rich history. It certainly doesn’t look like anything’s been “toned down” for a more mainstream audience.

Part of me wonders if this is a sign of heightened fidelity to the source material. Or, perhaps, at least, a sign that the movie studios are becoming gradually more comfortable with comic books? As a medium, comic books are still cult. I think that there was (and still is) a sense of awkwardness in trying to redesign those properties for a mainstream audience. Sometimes they made changes and adaptations which respected the heart of the character, while acknowledging that movies are an entirely different medium from comics (Nolan’s Batman Begins, or example). Other attempts to transition comic books to the big screen were less successful (Fantastic Four comes to mind).

Playing games with fans...

Being entirely honest, I was happy with most of the changes that were made to these stories to get them made as films. I think that giving Elektra more clothes is always a good thing (if only because New York at night can get cold, but also because it removes some of the awkwardness of a bikini-clad ninja assassin – nothing stereotypes a comic book audience faster than the perception that we have turned leering at scantily-clad women into an artform). I think that Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchman, containing scenes replicated shot for shot from the source material, confused making a faithful adaptation with making a good adaptation.

It looks like a celebration of the history of comic books, rather than an attempt to transition or develop them. It’s a view trapped on past accomplishments rather than potential future developments. The two major comic companies have spent the past decade consciously appealing back to what are considered “traditional” hokey comic book values – moving away, as a trend, from more grounded costumes and back toward bright and ridiculous characters and plots. Long “dead” characters who have been replaced by younger and newer characters are being resurrected to assume their old positions, removing any hint of change or development or growth. I don’t know how I feel about it as a whole, but I wonder if this is a little of what we’re seeing at the moment – at least in the screenshots coming through from Vaughn’s production.

A class-ic portrayal?

I’m intrigued by it. I don’t know if I’m looking forward to it, but I’m definitely anticipating it. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I’ll definitely be among the first in line to see it.

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5 Responses

  1. Dating it withing historical context has always been the X-men thing to do. Of course the parables for today were present in Singer’s X-Men, but I don’t know if they will be here.

    • It’ll be interesting see what Vaughn’s metaphor will be. Although perhaps he’ll be reflecting Joss Whedon’s take on the X-Men, which was similarly nostalgia-themed, but focused on “X-Men as superheroes” rather than “X-Men as oppressed minority” (with the exception of the “cure” thing).

  2. You have a very healthy attitude to comics and film Darren. You obviously love both but are able to separate them, and forgive a director for straying from source material if it improves the film.
    I pity fanboys who can’t appreciate film as a seperate medium, and just enjoy a different take on the worlds and characters they so fervently defend.
    Watchmen is one of my favourite graphic novels, and while I respect immensly the faithful version Zack Snyder put together – which I thoroughly enjoy watching – it simply feels like im reading the novel again. He’s almost too faithful – a film should bring something new, and directors should be given rein to do so.
    Nevertheless, Watchmen still remains one of the greatest comic book films ever IMHO. Whether staying faithful or creating your own slant, top priority is it has to be a good film – not like that wolverine origins shite

    • I have to admit that I do kinda want to write about Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic book, but I’m just too damn intimidated by it. Maybe one of these days I’ll work up the courage.

  3. great post Darren. for once i agree with Ross McD

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